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Western Analysts Skeptical about North Korea's Satellite Claims

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Apr-2012
Updated: 11-Apr-2012 07:04 PM

Veteran space analyst Jim Oberg, who serves as a consultant for NBC News, has been part of the foreign journalist corps allowed on site to see the rocket and spacecraft North Korea intends to launch in the next few days.   The spacecraft is not what he expected, he said in an interview for NBC, and the rocket is much more than is needed to launch it.  Meanwhile, other western analysts are skeptical that the satellite really is headed for a sun-synchronous orbit as North Korea states.

Oberg has worked in the U.S. space program for decades, including many years as a contractor at NASA's Johnson Space Center working on space shuttle orbital rendezvous oeprations.   In the NBC interview, he explained that he expected the Kwangmyongsong 3 (Bright Star 3) satellite -- a weather satellite according to North Korean officials -- to be in a clean room and probably already mounted to the rocket's third stage.   Instead, he and other journalists were allowed to walk right up to it:  "The problem is the North Koreans didn't just let us in [to the same room as the satellite], they let us get much too close.  I could've walked three steps and poked it with my finger."   Adding that at first he thought it was model, not the flight article, he was surprised they would allow people who had just arrived from a long road trip and were covered in dust so close.  "Maybe the satellite is built to be rugged; maybe they don't care.  We'll find out if they launch it, if it works or not."  As for the Unha-3 rocket, "it's bigger than it has to be."

Separately, some western space analysts are expressing skepticism that the satellite actually is intended to be placed in a sun-synchronous orbit.   It is a challenge to achieve such an orbit from North Korea's launch site on the east coast of the country.  Bob Christy at zarya.info has posted a representation of the trajectory based on a screen grab from North Korean television, with an additional line showing the modified trajectory that it would have to follow to achieve sun-synchronous orbit.  He quotes Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan's Space Report as calculating that the third stage would have to yaw "through something in the region of 50º before ignition," something Christy calls "ambitious."

Ted Molczcan, a highly respected amateur visual satellite observer in Canada who often posts on the SeeSat-L listserv, went so far as to tell Wired's Danger Room that he believes "the most reasonable interpretation is that they are lying about this being a satellite launch, which has been betrayed by the incompetence of their propagandists in over-reaching their cover story."  

North Korea has stated it will conduct the launch to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of their country's founder, Kim Il-sung, which is on April 15.    Some reports suggest the launch will take place sometime between Thursday and Monday, but an exact launch date and time is not yet available.   Kim Il-sung is the grandfather of North Korea's current president, Kim Jong-un.   The United States and other countries are strongly opposed to the launch, which they consider to be a missile test, not a satellite launch, that violates two United Nations Security Council resolutions and a recent U.S.-North Korea agreement. 


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